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Learning Life Lessons from Kemba

When Kemba Smith Pradia spoke this fall to a gathering of students at South Carolina State University, her candid talk about violence against women and the campus “hype” over drugs, sex and money resonated with students and faculty alike.

“By having enough courage to stand up and share her story, she empowered a lot of young men and women,” says Tiffany McMillian, a social work major at SCSU who was in the audience. “She was really real. (She) didn’t keep any secrets.”

Kemba Smith Pradia knows of what she speaks.

Ten years ago this month, Kemba Smith was wasting away in a federal prison as prisoner No. 26370-083. Used by others as a “drug mule,” the Richmond, Va., native, had pleaded guilty to her low-level involvement in a violent cocaine drug ring. She was serving a mandatory federal prison term of 24 1/2 years with no chance for parole. Her sentence was longer than that for many people convicted of murder, rape, robbery, fraud or arson, despite her being a first-time, non-violent offender and, in this case, having never used cocaine or benefited financially from the drug ring’s activities.

Smith lost her way early in college while trying to live the “fast lane” lifestyle of many of her peers. The fast lane led her into a relationship with a physically abusive boyfriend, a drug dealer who took her on a cross-country odyssey to elude capture by the authorities.

The fast life caused Smith to lie to her parents about school and her lifestyle and drop out of Hampton University. She would eventually break up with the boyfriend, now deceased, give birth to their son, Armani, while in custody and finally be deposited in the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn., to serve her sentence.

Smith’s “nightmare” was a case of a promising college student who became a poster child for the failures of a hastily written federal mandatory minimum drug sentencing law. In December 2000, during his final days in office, President Bill Clinton commuted Smith’s prison sentence to the 6 1/2 she had served.

With her new lease on life, Kemba Smith Pradia has worked to get her life on track, advocate for drug sentencing law reform and help students learn from her misfortune. Today, Pradia is a college graduate and married mother of two who tours college campuses telling her tale and warning students about the consequences of their life choices.

“There are few days that go by when I am not thinking about the past and how far God has brought me, the lessons I’ve learned from it and the struggles that continue over sentencing and the women I left behind,” says Pradia, 39. “I just take it a day at a time.”

Filter Free

Pradia is not shy about telling her story. She recounts her story, sometimes in graphic detail, to audiences of stunned students on college campuses and at youth summits. She talks candidly about how her poor choices derailed her college years. And she explains her decade-long road to personal redemption, hoping to persuade some to make wiser choices and others to realize there is a way out of a bad situation.

That was her message earlier this fall when she spoke to several hundred students at a Links, Inc. youth summit in Kansas City, Mo. It was her message when she talked to students at Lansing (Mich.) Community College and Michigan State University. She drove the message home again to more than 1,000 students on SCSU’s campus.

Pradia urges students to put education first, be careful about whom they associate with and fight the lure of sex, money and drugs. It’s passionate straight talk from a woman who lived “the hype” and survived.

“I see students every day who could be the next Kemba Smith,” says Adrienne Webber, dean of the Miller F. Whittaker Library at SCSU. “Until we tell Kemba’s story to our students, I think we do a great injustice to what is going on.”

Webber partnered with the school’s victims advocacy program at the university health center and several community groups to bring Pradia to the campus for a kickoff speech marking Domestic Violence Month.

“Her story shows it could happen to anybody’s child, regardless of their economic background,” says Webber, noting Pradia’s two-parent, middle-class suburban upbringing. “Her story is one that should be shared with everybody.”

During the SCSU gathering, one student in the audience rose, shared her story of domestic violence and thanked Pradia for her show of courage. After the speech, Webber says, a student confided that she was in an abusive relationship. School officials helped the student get help.

Webber says student reactions to Pradia’s story are mixed. Some say “gosh, (Pradia) she was stupid, that would never happen to me,” Webber says. “Others said ‘thank you. I was in an abusive situation and thought I had to take it.’”

Officials at other schools have also seen the impact of Pradia’s appearances.

“I see Kemba’s story as a powerful story for the women and men on the campus,” says Dr. Walter Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark. He invited Pradia to speak at the school last year as part of its Social Justice Institute, designed to get students involved in social justice issues. “I know plenty of students who are in bad relationships and don’t know how to get out of them,” he said. 

After her campuswide talk, Kimbrough arranged a private session on campus for about 20 young women who were in situations Pradia could relate to. She did a “lot of listening,” Pradia says, before offering advice.

At the University of Illinois-Chicago, where approximately 2,000 people came to hear her talk several years ago for an event called “The Color of Violence,” the story is much the same.

“On a college campus today there are so many women caught up in situations like Kemba was,” says Dr. Beth Richie, a UIC professor of criminology and African-American studies. Richie uses the original “Kemba’s Nightmare” story printed in Emerge magazine in 1996 in one of her criminal justice classes.

“Kemba’s story still has lots of relevance,” Richie says, noting the circumstances that converged in Pradia’s situation: “extreme aggressiveness by the criminal justice system” and the “extreme amount of violence” Pradia endured while associated with the drug ring that led to her incarceration.

When Pradia was released, there were approximately 140,000 people serving terms in federal prisons. Over the past decade, the federal prison population has risen 50 percent, to 210,148, according to an analysis of U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics by the Sentencing Project.

Women are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population, and 56 percent of them are in prison for drug or property crimes, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Like Pradia, many of these women were victims of violence before incarceration. Nearly six in 10 women in state prison have experienced physical or sexual abuse in the past.

Since her release from prison, Pradia has participated in dozens of justice summits and conferences and spoken at college campuses across the country, including Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Simmons College in Boston, Spelman College in Atlanta and Xavier University in New Orleans.

While Pradia has begun to space out her travels in order to spend more time with her family (husband Patrick; Armani, now 15; and daughter Phoenix, six months), she is reminded of “the old Kemba” almost daily, she says. These reminders come in the form of pleas for help. A parent worried about their child’s behavior calls from Maryland. An individual with “old Kemba” problems calls from Texas. “A person caught up in the situation” calls from Florida. A college student doing a research paper e-mails to request a few minutes of her time for an interview. They are trying to find out how to avoid being the next Kemba.

“I have to put everything in context,” Pradia says, when asked how she deals with the questions. “That was the old Kemba. Initially coming out of prison, that (kind of talk) bothered me. But, I’ve grown, I am stronger and wiser,” she says. “I embrace it.”

Pradia and others say her appearances have made a difference, although the impact is hard to determine. Most of her college and youth summit visits stem from teachers, administrators or student groups that have heard of her story and can relate to it through some family, friend or professional experience. Civic, social and civil rights groups — The Links, Inc., Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and the NAACP, among others — that embraced her cause early on recruit her for local and national events aimed at young people and parents.

There are anecdotal examples, Pradia says, where counselors or teachers like Richie have included her story in freshman orientation required reading materials or in classes. “I think colleges can use current events much more strategically to connect our students to outside life,” says Kimbrough. A talk from Pradia, he says, can be an eye opener.

Road to Redemption

Pradia says putting her post-prison life back on track has been a challenge that requires focus and determination.

After 6 1/2 years behind bars, she says she had to get used to freedom again. She had to learn about parenthood, a responsibility her parents, William and Odessa Smith, took on when Armani was born. She had to figure out how to resume her college pursuits. She had to find a job to support her son and herself.

Pradia credits her parents with helping her manage her burdens. The Smiths say they never lost hope for their only child.

“It’s about family, the way we were raised, values,” says William Smith, an accountant. “We’re just committed to helping Kemba through thick and thin. In going to therapy, we were told no matter how deep she sank, those values were going to rise.”

That advice kept the Smiths going during their daughter’s incarceration, a period during which they had to file for bankruptcy twice, having exhausted their resources traveling the country to seek help for their daughter.

That advice has sustained them and Pradia as she has rebounded. Two years after her release from prison, she earned her bachelor’s degree from Virginia Union University. She later spent a year in graduate school at Howard University before getting a Soros fellowship to work as an advocate for sentencing and drug law reform. She married Patrick Pradia, a federal air traffic controller, in 2009, moving with him to Indiana later that year. Having a loving husband is a wonderful feeling, Pradia says. Learning to raise a child from day one gives Pradia the chance to be the cradle-rocking mother for Phoenix she couldn’t be for Armani.

“It’s getting a lot more regular now,” she says of her new life, adding with a smile that raising children and being a traveling public advocate is a challenge. “It’s quite difficult juggling the two.”

Eventually, she says she hopes to put “Kemba’s Nightmare” behind her. For now, however, the high points of her new life are often balanced by reminders that her freedom comes with strings attached. Some of those strings, such as the label of convicted felon, will follow her for life.

“Unless I know someone who can open a door for me, I have to check ‘yes’ on that box,” she says, referring to job application forms that ask whether an applicant has been convicted of a crime. That answer scares many employers away, she says, and many jobs, such as teaching, are off limits to her.

She says she wants to meet Clinton and thank him for giving her a second chance. Her parents have met Clinton and he has written her commending her for making good on her chance to start over.

Pradia also hopes to register to vote, a right she lost upon conviction. She couldn’t vote in the 2008 presidential election but still volunteered to work across her home state of Virginia on voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns. Laws vary by state regarding restoration of voting rights for felons, she says. She hopes she has no problem registering in Indiana.

Also, while trying to talk young people out of choices that might lead them to the life she once led, Pradia says she still thinks of the prisoners she met whose circumstances were similar to hers. Many of those women are still in prison, she says.

“It’s a waste of money,” she says. “It doesn’t take 10, 20, 40 years to learn from that mistake. I don’t think they are a threat to anyone in society.”

Pradia hopes to continue doing her part to equalize drug sentencing laws and to keep talking to students, helping those in trouble figure how to get out of it and persuading skeptical students to make the right choices now or risk a nightmare of their own.

“They think nothing will happen to them, and some don’t realize the consequences of their actions,” Pradia says. “I know they think they will get a slap on the wrist. Five years later, it won’t be so cool when they can’t get a job.”

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